Humanitarian worker Joel Smith knew it would be difficult to reason with the man who had been knifing and draining his water tanks in the Southern Arizona desert.
Michael Lewis Arthur Meyer, a non-veteran who nonetheless heads the anti-immigrant vigilante patrol group Veterans on Patrol (VOP), had accused Humane Borders of playing a part in a sweeping array of conspiracist claims in the past: of working for Mexican drug cartels, billionaire philanthropist George Soros, and high-ranking Democrats as part of a child sex trafficking ring. Despite the wild-eyed claims, Smith drove to a Tucson courthouse on November 2, 2018, thinking he could put an end to the situation if he confronted Meyer in person. “I thought I could reason with him,” he said,“but I was wrong.”
Like other humanitarians in the borderlands, Smith, operations manager at the Tucson-based Humane Borders, leaves out large blue water tanks for migrants making the difficult journey through some of the harshest stretches of the desert. In 2018 alone, authorities and others recovered the remains of at least 127 migrants in the county, according to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner. Why someone would attack their potentially life-saving offering, Smith couldn’t understand. “It’s like attempted murder,” he said in an interview. “It’s like firing into a crowd. Just because you didn’t hit anybody doesn’t mean the attempt isn’t there.”
At the courthouse in November 2018, Smith approached Meyer, who had an unrelated hearing that day. But outside the entry Smith’s hopes to appeal to Meyer’s sense of morality quickly washed away. “I came to talk to you,” Smith said.
“No,” Meyer snapped, thrusting an accusatory finger at Smith’s chest in part of an exchange that was videotaped and later posted on VOP’s social media accounts. “You came to run your fucking mouth.”
Meyer’s face flashed red, he puffed up his chest, and he shouted. He accused Smith of helping child traffickers, of exploiting children, and of being a “fuck face.” As tensions rose, Smith felt a wave of anger wash over him. He wondered: Who does this guy think he’s talking to? He clenched his fists and closed the gap between him and Meyer. The two men were near blows before backing away moments before a police officer exited the courthouse and broke it up.
Since the middle of 2018, Meyer had been vandalizing Smith’s water stations. He wasn’t shy about it. In videos posted on Twitter, he bragged that VOP had interrupted humanitarian operations carried out by liberal groups they accused of ushering a flood of terrorists and pedophiles across the border. (Meyer also used these acts of sabotage as rationale for calling on his supporters to send donations of food, gift cards, and supplies, including batteries and camping equipment, among other items.)
But in the summer of 2019 Meyer and the VOP escalated their attacks when they allegedly began stealing the water tanks, loading them into the back of vehicles and carting them off. On social media outlets, VOP insists that Humane Borders and other nonprofits were part of a nefarious network funneling children into sexual slavery for a shadowy cabal of elites: Soros, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mexico’s infamous Sinaloa Cartel. “Psst…” the group wrote on Twitter on July 23. “Someone tell @HumaneBordersAZ that their Supply Line for the Cartels and Sex Offenders are under attack.”
These Pizzagate-style conspiracist claims—often imbued with explicit antisemitism—worried Smith more than the vandalism and theft. Water tanks can be replaced or repaired, but could these dizzying claims prompt someone to carry out a vigilante attack against humanitarians or migrants?
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shares that concern. In a May 30 intelligence bulletin later published by Yahoo News, the Bureau’s field office in Phoenix predicted that conspiracism not only could, but will push “both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.”
The bulletin went on to predict that the 2020 presidential election season would fuel conspiracist-inspired violence to even more worrying heights, amid already surging hate crimes and U.S. President Donald Trump’s frequent claims that migrants are invading the country.
Trump’s “invasion” claim—repeated more than 2,000 times by his campaign in 2019 alone, according to an analysis by The Guardian—has been echoed in the apparent manifestos and social media posts of mass killers around the world: in the October 2018 slaughter of 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue; in the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, which left 51 dead; and the August 2019 bloodshed in El Paso, where 21-year-old Patrick Crusius is charged with killing 22 people at a Walmart over the supposed “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
When Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, he recycled familiar talking points. After declaring that “the future belongs to patriots,” he went on to accuse “open border activists” of promoting human smuggling and the “erasure” of borders. “Today, I have a message for those open border activists who cloak themselves in the rhetoric of social justice: Your policies are not just. Your policies are cruel and evil,” he said.
Their paranoia fueled by such bellicose rhetoric, militia groups up and down the southern border have hunted down migrants. In April, the heavily armed, New Mexico-based United Constitutional Patriots (UCP) militia rounded up and detained hundreds of migrants before handing them over to Border Patrol. Reporters later uncovered that UCP had been pushing a slew of conspiracist allegations, among them QAnon, which alleges that the “deep state” has enacted a plot against Trump and his supporters; the false claim that Muslim American U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar plans to impose “Sharia law” on the country; and the baseless claim that ISIS is attempting to infiltrate the United States via Mexico. When court documents were subsequently unsealed, it was revealed that UCP leader Larry Hopkins and his militia group had allegedly trained to assassinate former U.S. President Barack Obama, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and liberal philanthropist George Soros.
In June, the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center announced a lawsuit against the AZ Patriots and Patriot Movement AZ, a pair of Arizona-based groups that regularly rail against immigrants and Muslims, among others. The SPLC said Patriot Movement AZ had “engaged in fear-mongering and conspiracy theories about immigrants,” and accused the two groups of harassing and intimidating churches working with asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants in the Phoenix area.
During the run-up to the November 2018 midterm elections, as Trump fanned fears over a so-called “caravan” of refugees and migrants headed to the U.S., a dizzying array of conspiracist claims—like that those coming to the U.S. carried diseases, or antisemitic charges that Soros had directly funded their journey—made their way onto Fox News and other right-wing news outlets.
Although militias and patriot groups have historically focused on the federal government, Heidi Beirich, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, explained that many vigilante organizations are increasingly directing their attention to the border. “It is there that militias interested in rounding up undocumented immigrants in border towns have been congregating in the last year or so,” she told PRA by email. (Beirich has since stepped down from the Intelligence Project’s leadership.)
“The relatively new surfacing of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hate speech emanating from the militia movement is a major concern and has on numerous occasions in the last couple of years elevated to plots or acts of domestic terrorism,” Beirich added.
By early August, Meyer had spent nearly a year damaging or stealing some two-dozen water tanks belonging to Humane Borders, Smith estimated. On August 5, after the Pima County Sheriff’s Department received reports of a “suspicious individual in the desert,” deputies dispatched to the area found Meyer loitering near an elementary school in Three Points, Arizona.
The deputies arrested Meyer, and he was charged with two felony counts of third-degree burglary and misdemeanor charges for criminal damage and theft. The arrest concerned an alleged vandalism-related incident that took place on July 12, Pima County Sheriff’s Department Deputy James Allerton told PRA, adding: “We have had contact with Mr. Michael Lewis Arthur Meyer before.”
“I can’t speak to how many reports [the sheriff’s department received overall],” Allerton said. “However, I know in the local area the [humanitarian] groups have complained about this sort of thing happening, and it’s something our department has addressed. If a crime has occurred, our department is going to investigate that.”
PRA was unable to reach Meyer for comment. For nearly a month following his arrest, the VOP Twitter account remained dark. Its first post, on September 7, accused Pima County Sheriff’s Department of providing cover for Humane Borders, which it described as “the ones aiding [and] abetting the traffickers with H20 strategically placed FAR from [Border Patrol] surveillance.”
Known by militia groups and humanitarians alike as “Screwy Louie”—a moniker he reportedly earned at the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff in Nevada—Meyer founded VOP in 2015 to raise awareness about military veterans grappling with homelessness.
Meyer first made news when he scaled an 80-foot light pole in Surprise, Arizona, hanging an upside down American flag to signal distress over veteran suicides. After sitting atop the flagpole for four hours, Meyer was removed and was arrested for criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct.
In January 2016, he landed in the news again, this time for engaging in a fistfight at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation in Oregon, where he and two followers set up a tent across from the compound where militia groups were gripped in an armed standoff with authorities.
Once back in Arizona, VOP increasingly took on the dimensions of a militia-like vigilante group. In addition to patrolling homeless camps, VOP members started patrolling around the desert, searching out supposedly nefarious plots to undermine security on the country’s southern border.
In late May 2018, Meyer stumbled on his biggest break to date. He claimed he’d uncovered a partially underground sex camp at a CEMEX concrete plant in Tucson. At the spot, he insisted, human traffickers held and raped children and funneled them into a sexual slavery network overseen by a shadowy cabal of elites, a longstanding trope among conspiracists that has antisemitic undertones.
Terry Sayles, a 70-year-old retired schoolteacher who occasionally volunteers in humanitarian work, woke up the next morning to find his Facebook feed flooded with news about the supposed sex trafficking camp.
A self-styled sleuth who tracks militias, vigilantes, and others on the Far Right, Sayles was intrigued. He decided to make the short drive from his home to CEMEX, wanting to see the site for himself. Within moments of arriving, Sayles told PRA, he understood that Meyer’s claims were “a cock and bull story.” He continued, “At that time, I thought these guys were pretty fucked up by the way they were talking … I knew they were tied in with the Bundy-type mentality.”
Sayles watched Meyer and the others speak to a local news crew, and then started digging around at the supposed sex camp. He found an English-language Bible, a dusty old paperback novel, and a few mounds of trash strewn about. Nothing, to Sayles’s estimation, indicated sex trafficking had taken place there. “I was dismayed to see just how willing people were to buy this bullshit story,” he recalled. “If you’re not familiar with the area, it’s easy for people to be taken in [by these claims] … Everybody wants to believe the worst about cartels, and a lot of people believed Pizzagate, so it was easy for people to buy into his bullshit.”
Tucson news stations ran with the story, while right-wing blogs like Gateway Pundit helped make the allegations go viral. Within a week, a video Meyer posted to Facebook racked up hundreds of thousands of views.
But like Terry Sayles, local authorities cast doubt on Meyer’s claims. Police investigated the site and decreed that it was nothing more than a homeless camp, much like the many homeless camps in and around Tucson. Outraged, Meyer alleged that authorities were complicit in a cover up. At one point, the Oath Keepers militia joined the fray, putting out a “call to action” and urging others to join Meyer’s “operation” in Tucson. The following month, Meyer returned to the CEMEX site and occupied a tower there until he was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing and skipping a court date for a prior assault charge.
While Meyer continued lobbing accusations at authorities, his claims proved too much even for some of the country’s most prominent conspiracists. Infowars initially ran a story supporting VOP’s child sex camp theory, drawing supposed links between the Clinton Foundation and CEMEX. That article also speculated as to whether Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild was related to the Rothschild banking family, long the target of antisemitic conspiracists.
After Infowars deleted the article, the website’s founder, Alex Jones, posted a subsequent note arguing that there was “no evidence” to support Meyer’s claims. Shifting the blame, Jones accused the “mainstream media” of backing the “local rumors” in order to distract from actual sex trafficking. “From the second I saw this story,” he wrote, “I told my crew it was a setup and a honeypot [trap]. It just reeked of it.”
However, VOP’s Twitter account has continued to promote the debunked narrative and others like it: that Hillary Clinton lurked behind the murder of Democratic staffer Seth Rich; that powerful Democrats operated a child sex dungeon at a pizza parlor in Washington D.C.; that an anonymous whistleblower called “Q” leaks classified intelligence exposing a “deep state” plot to oust President Trump.
Throughout the summer of 2019, the VOP Twitter account continued to claim that Casa de los Niños, a children’s residential facility in Tucson, was part of a child sex trafficking network. “That place is respectable and has been around for decades,” Humane Borders’s Smith said. “That shows you how dangerous he is—they’ll lash out at anybody.”
In tweets around the same time, VOP accused longtime target Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild of lording over a “trafficking empire.”
Journalist David Neiwert, author of Alt-America and several books on the U.S. Far Right, explained that the pedophilia accusations deployed so often by radical right-wing extremists stem from an ideological goal of “purification of the national identity.” By casting themselves in a “heroic light,” Neiwert told PRA, they hope to “find an enemy and name it, and then build up a list of grievances, most of them imagined, about that enemy.”
Throughout his years overseeing the VOP, Meyer had been busy gallivanting around the Southern Arizona desert. By late summer 2018, many locals in Arivaca, Arizona—a small, 600-person town in Pima County, located around 11 miles from the Mexican border—had grown frustrated by the steady flow of militias, vigilante groups (including Meyer’s), and anti-immigrant activists passing through their community.
Only nine years earlier, rogue militiamen Shawna Forde and Jason Bush, an Aryan Nations alumnus from Washington State, had hooked up with local drug dealers for a deadly mission. During a home raid in which they intended to steal drugs and money—for the purpose, they claimed, of protecting the border—they murdered 29-year-old Raul Flores and his nine-year-old daughter, Brisenia. Forde had hoped to make off with drugs to sell to fund his efforts to seal off the U.S. border. In the end, they only retrieved a handful of items of jewelry.
Although locals say many militia groups and vigilante outfits steered clear of the area for a time following the slayings, others started popping up again in recent years. By the time Meyer showed up at La Gitana Cantina, the only bar in town, one day in August 2018, the armed group Arizona Border Recon had relocated to Arivaca, and a slew of anti-immigrant activists had set their sights on the community. For several months, far-right groups, including militias, had been coming to town and stirring up confrontations with locals.
Megan Davern, a local meat cutter and bartender at La Gitana Cantina, spotted Meyer and other VOP members seated around a table on the back patio when she showed up for the late shift. Noting their military-like garb, their empty gun holsters, the drone placed on their table, and their flashlights, she immediately suspected they were militia.
After Meyer and his party settled their tab and headed outside, Meyer started filming the local humanitarian aid group’s headquarters across the street. Davern rushed out, confronted them, and banned them from returning to the bar. “We’d appreciate it if people would stop aiding the child trafficking and letting these kids cross through the border,” Meyer told her while live streaming the exchange on Facebook.
After Davern returned to the bar, Meyer addressed his streaming video: “We’re gonna separate the good from the bad, instead of letting all these terrorists and child traffickers and these perverts just come up through our backyard.”
Since that confrontation, several anti-immigrant groups have targeted Arivaca, its residents, and humanitarians operating in the area. A few days after the bar encounter, the Utah Gun Exchange, a right-wing guns rights group based just outside Salt Lake City, showed up in town, driving up and down its main street in a BearCat armored vehicle with the words “Take Your Country Back” printed on its front windshield.
Many residents in town held meetings and made plans to pressure the anti-immigrant activists to stay out, but the groups continued to take aim at Arivaca. When one local resident subsequently posted a handful of No Militia sign on her property, they were run over by a car, damaged, and later stolen. Some complained that the vigilantes had trespassed on their property, and many felt uneasy about the men carrying guns and patrolling to catch immigrants in the area. Several far-right figures and militiamen showed up at the bar to confront Davern and other bartenders about its no-militia policy.
In February 2019, Patriot Movement AZ showed up in town, filmed several businesses and homes, and knocked on the door of the then-empty humanitarian aid office. The group later posted the video of the town on Facebook, claiming to have gone “incognito” to “check in on this humanitarian aid place and see what we can find out.” One woman complained that Arivaca doesn’t “allow any type of militia.” She added, “They don’t like Border Patrol.”
In June, James Saeler, a local resident who had been sanctioned by a judge for writing threatening anonymous letters to other townspeople, posted a picture of the humanitarian aid office on Facebook. The building “is used to support the criminal organizations No More Deaths, Samaritans, People Helping People, [and] Humane Borders,” he wrote, referring to several humanitarian groups that, he claimed, “provide aid and comfort to the illegals flooding across our borders, and they have also been rumored to be involved in drug running.”
Davern, who has crossed paths with the anti-immigrant activists on several occasions, told PRA she had been concerned about “people coming from other places, who don’t know anything about [Arivaca] … People who want to be martyrs because they don’t lead very fulfilling lives.”
She added, “I have never, ever felt threatened by a migrant, and I felt very threatened by militia.”
On December 10, 2018, in Marana, an hour-and-a-half north of Arivaca, Rachel Krause was washing dishes when her dogs started barking furiously at a commotion outside. Maybe it was the postman, she thought. But when the then-43-year-old mother of two stepped outside, she saw Meyer standing on the street in front of her home.
Krause had established a Facebook page six months earlier, Citizens Against VOP, after she stumbled upon a story spreading across her Facebook feed. In the video, Meyer, who claimed to have found a child’s skull in the Tucson desert, asked followers to send gift cards and supplies to VOP. (The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner later debunked the claim, insisting that the skull belonged to an adult.)
Krause started researching VOP and criticizing the group on Facebook, prompting Meyer’s supporters to doxx her in late July 2018, posting her full name and address online for his followers to see.
Standing in front of Krause’s home in December, Meyer screamed into a Facebook livestream video that Krause was a meth addict, a “Luciferian” who trafficked children, and a friend to pedophiles.
Krause called 911 and waited outside, with a handgun, until police officers eventually arrived and hauled Meyer away for residential picketing and disorderly conduct.
Since Facebook removed her Citizens Against VOP page—because, she believes, VOP supporters repeatedly reported it—Krause has taken to tracking the group on a new page, Citizens Against Anti-Government Militia Extremists. And although an injunction against harassment forbids Meyer from engaging her, she still fears that he could incite violence, either against her or someone else.
For his part, Humane Borders’s Joel Smith worries that the damage has already been done. “We are still scared of copy cats,” he said, “and we are worried about the possibility of someone showing up out of the blue, maybe firing on us or attacking volunteers.”
“He believes half of what he says, and he’s tried to rally the troops to arm themselves, stand up, and fight,” Krause told PRA. “That makes him not just crazy; it makes him dangerous.”
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